Sometimes inspiration is a breaker that you ride successfully to shore. Other times, it is a tidal wave that drags you beneath, gasping for creative oxygen. Artists, writers, athletes and engineers have all spent time on “productivity life support.” There are many terms to describe the feeling: snag, writer’s block, hitting the wall, and the less than graceful brainfart. So what are creative people to do when their sense of self-expression is stifled in the face of a “problem?” A recent article in the May/June 2013 issue of Psychology Today attempts to answer that question.
Striving for innovation above production creates more issues than solutions. Markman proposes that we eschew cliche, and re-frame the way we speak about the problem. Understanding that brains automatically suggest information based on a familiar definition for a situation, he urges, “Don’t think differently. Think about different things.” Sprigman and Raustiala, by contrast, note copyright laws as an example of how society overvalues originality. They argue that imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it is an effective starting point for artists to expand upon ideas.
Internal and external expectations also hamper creativity. Gray cites research conducted at the Harvard Business School which indicates that unsolicited evaluation corks the “inspiration genie” in the bottle. It seems if you are looking for appreciation, validation, or attention, you are your creativity’s own worst enemy. Over-concentration can be a further hindrance. Beilock encourages us to take time away from the project, by doing low-impact “mental aerobics,” to distract our minds from the stress of performance anxiety. Movement is also conducive to idea generation, she adds. Bregman rounds out the discussion by reminding us to acknowledge down-time and “doing nothing” as a valuable part of the creative process. When our brains aren’t focused on anything in particular, he argues, they are more likely to interweave ideas and make connections.
This article raises many worthwhile points for artists. We definitely strive for originality, and deal with expectations from both without and within, when facing that blank canvas. I’ve found relief from creative droughts by playing music to free-associate, and inspire movement. Walking is also a great idea generator for me. How do you handle creative blocks?
“The Enemies of Invention,” Art Markman, Peter Gray, Sian Beilock, Christopher J Sprigman, Kal Raustiala, Peter Bregman.
Published in the May/June 2013 issue of Psychology Today.